The collapse of the American project in Afghanistan, after twenty years of war, will likely mean that many people will herald the war on terror over. The scars that will live long after the fall of Kabul will not just be political, social, and psychological, but also from the devastating effect of political conflict on the ecology. Many of the longest lasting effects of modern industrial wars are felt decades after guns fall silent, in the very soil and nature of the land where the war was fought. What better illustration could there be of this than that other twenty yearlong United States imperial disaster, the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War officially ended in 1975, when Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) fell to the North Vietnamese forces. Yet for many of the people of Vietnam, the effects of the war continue to be felt to this day; in the continued degradation of their environment and their health that the war brought. Many of us in the west may have heard of the fact that the United States dropped Agent Orange in Vietnam. We may have heard that this chemical agent has had serious deleterious effects on the people of Vietnam ever since; but few of us are actually aware of the full extent of the chemical’s effects on the human body and the natural environment.
Agent Orange was one, and indeed the most widely, of a series of Rainbow Herbicides which the U.S. military dropped on Vietnam between 1961 and 1975. In that time, the U.S. military dropped at least 73 million tons of herbicides over the North Vietnamese countryside. The objective was simple; deny Viet Cong guerrillas forest cover and starve the local villagers that supported the Viet Cong out of the area. This amounted to at least 10% of the entire land area of Vietnam being sprayed at least once with herbicides. The full extent of herbicide use in the Vietnam War remains unknown, due to the United States government’s failure to collaborate with independent investigators.
During the entirety of the herbicide campaign, the United States government insisted that they were not harmful to human health; how this was meant to align with their stated aim to starve out the enemy isn’t clear. However, the effects on human health became evident soon enough when United States veterans who handled these rainbow herbicides started to develop cancers which were otherwise unexplainable. After nearly a decade of campaigning by veterans groups, and attempts to sue manufacturers of rainbow herbicides, the US government and herbicide manufacturers settled to pay US veterans $187 million in 1984, without admitting any guilt. To this day the United States has never paid any compensation to the people of Vietnam it directly sprayed, which comprised the vast majority of the victims of its herbicide campaign.
The greatest harm of the rainbow herbicides is of course directly to people, but the long-lasting harm to the environment is another casualty of war. At least 20 million metric tons of timber were destroyed during the US’s defoliation campaign, both in the highlands and in the coastal mangrove swamps. Both of these ecosystems are global biodiversity hotspots, including scores, if not hundreds, of endangered endemic species, some of which no doubt have gone extinct as a direct result of the US herbicide campaign. In the highlands, the loss of forest has led to large scale erosion, resulting both in the loss of fertile soils which agricultural communities relied on and the polluting of water sources further downriver. The loss of the mangroves has resulted in Vietnam losing one of its great natural resources. Mangrove swamps act as necessary barriers against flooding, as well as a source of various economically important fish species. Although the Vietnamese government has managed to replant some of the most important mangrove forests for flood control, the vast majority of this unique and socially important ecosystem that was destroyed remains lost, at this point probably permanently.
So why bring this up now? After all, the actions of the United States government in Vietnam, though they have lasting effects, were done half a century ago. Well firstly, because the United States has yet to apologise to the Vietnamese government or people for what it has done, or offer any financial recompense for past and continuing damage. And secondly, because things have not changed as much as we might like to think since the 1970s. Now, as the United States suffers another spectacular defeat, it’s time to consider how little it has owned up to in the fall out of its last one.